To Pay or Not to Pay ... That is the Changing Question
In an era, where citizen "journalists," aggregators and content farms threaten to turn the information media companies produce into a commodity, the importance of protecting premium content is greater than ever.
That point was made in my last column when I expressed confusion about why some news organizations dropped their paywall, so visitors to their websites could read coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings. If a business model is predicated around subscriptions to your content, why abandon that when the demand for your information is at its highest?
For years, sports media outlets, and probably non-sports as well, have chased one of the editorial holy grails that remained elusive to all—breaking the story about the first active professional athlete in one of the four major sports to come out as gay.
Now, why we make that delineation when numerous athletes in golf, tennis and the WNBA as well as decades worth of retired male and female athletes in many sports have come out of the closet is another discussion.
However, for the sake of this major news story, let's address Sports Illustrated, which garnered significant attention for its exclusive cover story where NBA player Jason Collins publicly announced for the first time that he is gay.
Like the bombings at the Boston Marathon, this is one of those stories that has a sports tie in, but transcends the so-called candy store of news because it is a topic with mass interest.
The Collins revelation is big. This is a story that could drive sales of SI's print publication and/or digital magazine app beyond it's existing readership. This is a story that could provide a spike in revenue while expanding the base.
However, this is the age where magazines repeatedly make the mistake of giving content away for free. So, I simply went to SI.com and, sure enough, the magazine cover featuring Collins was on the home page. I hoped Sports Illustrated resisted the temptation to repeat this mistake but alas the media professional side of me came away disappointed when the entire feature was just a click away.
While scrolling down as I read the compelling story, which was co-authored by Collins, I saw in the neighboring right column a text box with links to supporting content. This included features about how the story came about, reactions from Collins' twin brother, players and media, as well as columns from other SI writers, photo galleries, videos and much more.
All of this content is awesome and epitomizes how a website should be used to support the primary content in a print and/or digital publication. Multiple resources were pooled to address this landmark sports moment from numerous angles. And while other sports media outlets played catch-up by piggy backing off this long-coveted scoop, the nationwide coverage served as an inadvertent marketing source to create more interest in the story and drive sales. Only, that wasn't the case as I sat in front of my computer, reading the cover story with the five dollars I would have spent to either buy the print or digital magazine still in my pocket.
Typically, when a visitor to SI.com clicks on the magazine tab in its main menu, they are redirected to a page promoting its cross-platform products. Visitors are encouraged to either sign in if they are a subscriber or to sign up for one of three subscription options to gain access.
This is a welcome change from SI's previous practice of posting the content for an entire issue online, which cannibalized the print edition. In fairness, this walled garden, which emphasizes the value of being a subscriber, has been in place for a while now but there was a long period where there was no pay barrier. That was irrelevant with the Collins story.
SI's editors said they posted the story online before the issue hit the newsstands to reach the largest audience possible. During the last five years, the SI print edition has seen its circulation drop slightly but consistently to 3.1 million while newsstand sales fell 46 percent. Meanwhile, its website traffic has climbed consistently and now has about 12 million unique visitors per month.
There was also the recent revelation that digital advertising now accounts for 25 cents of every ad dollar spent according to a report by Standard Media Index, which analyzed spending by four of the Big 6 holding companies.
In addition to seeing an increase in ad dollars going toward digital advertising, another report by Flurry Analytics reported Americans are spending more time accessing the Web via mobile apps than native web browsing on a laptop or computer.
The combination of all these factors gives an indication why SI put an emphasis on scooping its print edition on its own website. It doesn't explain why they abandoned their usual practice of keeping its print content behind the Web wall, instead of just promoting the story on its website to keep other media outlets from breaking the story and supplementing it with the additional supporting content.
According to the New York Times, in the first two hours after the story was released, Sports Illustrated’s website received five million page views, which is more than double what it typically receives in that time period. The story didn't have a breakdown of how much of that traffic was for the Collins story. No matter how many people read the story online, each one represents a lost sale of a print or digital magazine. Given the newsstand slide and difference in ad revenue from print to digital, offering the story for free on the Web makes even less sense. If the business model is to make non-subscribers pay for print content, then don't abandon that for a short-term pop to chase eyeballs.
ESPN has long used its print magazine as a tool to drive subscriptions to the Insider section of its website, which indicates its lower priority to TV and the Web within its multimedia empire. Stories from ESPN the Magazine are regularly cannibalized by reposting on the website or being featured on TV. At least they stick with this model.
SI has a strong web presence, but minimal TV presence and no network, never mind multiple networks like ESPN. A freemium approach would have worked perfectly with the Collins feature considering SI's excellent comprehensive coverage of this story. Go ahead and give away the preliminary supporting content but make us pay for the main event. Let the demand for your content stand on its own to drive sales and subscriptions.
If a media brand doesn't put a value to its premium content and stick to it, then their subscribers, or more importantly, non-subscribers, won't either.
Ron Matejko is the President of Phoenix, Ariz.-based MVP Media, an award-winning digital publishing company. Matejko has 16 years of publishing experience in print, Web and mobile and has worked on the staff of two award-winning publications.
MVP Media publishes MVP Magazine, the first interactive sports publication, which won a Bronze 2010 Digital Magazine Award for Best Sports Magazine, besting entrants from 26 countries around the world, and was a finalist for Designer of the Year. MVP Media will launch its own magazines on the iPad in 2011.
MVP Media also helps existing publishers convert their print products into dynamic publications for the web and tablets. Visit the MVP Magazine website at www.mvptoday.com. Contact Ron by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @mvp_media.